Remembering Hurricane Hugo

By Jeffrey Masters, Ph.D. — Director of Meteorology, Weather Underground, Inc.
In this series, Dr. Jeff Masters tells the story of 1989's Hurricane Hugo--the most destructive Atlantic hurricane ever recorded up until that time.

Day 12: Hugo Continues Towards the U.S. Southeast

On September 20, 1989, Hurricane Hugo continued its steady northwest march at 15 mph towards the Southeast U.S., brushing the Bahama Islands along the way. Wind shear diminished, allowing the hurricane to intensify back to a major Category 3 hurricane with 115 mph winds. Hurricane watches and warnings had not yet been posted for the U.S. coast, but at noon on September 20, Mayor Riley of Charleston went on the air, telling residents of the city that Hugo was a killer. There was a very good chance that Hugo would be South Carolina's worst disaster this century, he said, with a storm surge up to fifteen feet high. Now, while the weather was good and the storm still far away, was the time to board up and get out.

20 September, 1989

Figure 1.AVHRR visible satellite image of Hurricane Hugo taken on September 20, 1989. Wind shear had diminished, allowing Hugo to intensify to a Category 3 storm with 115 mph winds. Image credit: Google Earth rendition of the NOAA HURSAT data base.

South Carolinans paid attention. Within an hour, residents jammed hardware stores and supermarkets. Traffic on roads away from the coast swelled as people scrambled to flee the arrival of the first major hurricane to strike South Carolina in thirty years--since Category 3 Hurricane Gracie of 1959 slammed into the coast south of Charleston.

At 6 pm, it became official: the Southeast U.S. coast from St. Augustine to Cape Hatteras had been placed under a hurricane watch, meaning that hurricane conditions could be expected within 36 hours. The torrent of evacuees leaving the coast swelled, reaching a million people in all.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the aftermath of Hugo became desperate as widespread looting erupted on St. Croix, forcing President Bush to send 1,100 troops. Wunderground member Mike Steers was there, and relates this story: "Surviving the aftermath was the real challenge. The lack of power, water, communications of any kind, and the crime and looting was the real test. After about a week of digging out of the remains of the house and neighborhood I was able to venture out on my motorcycle to see what had become of my job. On the way, I personally witnessed the looting and lawlessness. I even saw a National Guard truck backed up to what was a appliance store and the guardsmen were helping themselves to washers and dryers. Never mind that there was no power to run them. When I got to the seaplane ramp, I saw the total destruction that is depicted in one of the photos I sent. On my way home, there was a small local grocery store I had usually gone to, and I was going to stop in and see how the owners were doing. There was a band of youths in the process of carrying out everything that was not nailed down. From the back, out ran a rastaman with a machete saying he wanted my motorcycle. Needless to say, I gunned it and got back to my house as soon as possible. My neighbors and I set up our own armed 24-hour security checkpoint to protect ourselves. It was about a week later that the first of the giant C-5s flew over, sent by President Bush to start to restore order..."

St Croix

Figure 2.Newspaper headline from the Virgin Islands Daily News after Hurricane Hugo, detailing the looting problems on St. Croix. Image scanned in by Mike Steers.

The Hurricane Hugo Retrospective:

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